|Queens of Noise|
It should come as no surprise that the Runaways are one of my all-time favorite bands. Somehow they managed to overcome beginnings that were equal parts gimmicky (forming an all-girl group) and skeevy (manager Kim Fowley’s distasteful and essentially illegal relations with these underage girls) to become an incredible rock band.
The Runaways were inspired primarily by the success of American glam rocker Suzi Quatro; her platform stomping glam anthems “Can the Can”, The Wild One”, and “48 Crash” sound like a cross between Gary Glitter and Slade, and Joan Jett’s look and sound were heavily influenced by Quatro, who also achieved renown for playing “Leather Tuscadero” on the sitcom “Happy Days”. Even at the time I felt it dubious that there were a lot of women playing bass and wearing leather jumpsuits and feathered shags in the 50’s but I kept my mouth shut.
Even before Suzi there was an all-female rock group that achieved some success in the early 70’s, and that was Fanny. They achieved some fame with their cover of “Badge” by Cream in 1970; their sound was very conventionally early 70’s rock and its not clear how many women (or men for that matter) saw their all-female status as inspiring, but they are nevertheless a noteworthy footnote in the history of women in rock.
Thus by 1975 there was some precedent for the Runaways, and Joan Jett hooked up (one hopes not literally) with producer and all around weirdo Kim Fowley to assemble an all-female rock group. In short order vocalist Cherie Currie, guitarist Lita Ford, bassist Sandy Fox (Michael Steele of the Bangles was briefly a member) and drummer Sandy West were assembled and began making music.
One thing about the Runaways is that they defy categorization. Their sound has equal footing in the crunchy glam of Bowie and Slade, the metal of Deep Purple, and the punk of the Ramones. Indeed, they formed during a transitional period in American music in general and Los Angeles music in particular, when the glitter era was ending but punk (and metal) had not yet started, so perhaps its no wonder that their sound bridges this musical divide.
Obviously “Cherry Bomb”, off their 1976 eponymous album, is the major, standout track in the catalog of the Runaways, and its arguably one of the greatest songs of the entire 1970’s. A chugging, strutting slice of sleazy, estrogen-fueled glitterpunk, it set the bar EXTREMELY high for not just female artists wishing to express their independence and sexuality but for men trying to show their rock chops. Cherie Currie’s vocals swerve between quasi-operatic and seething venom (like when she says “Hello daddy, hello mom”). I also love the double entendre of “Cherry Bomb”; growing up in the 70’s, nothing fascinated my friends and I more than explosives and fireworks, and the destructive power of cherry bombs was renowned. To fuse this explosive image with teen female sexuality is simply brilliant. This song is one of my all-time favorites.
But its by no means the only good song the Runaways ever recorded. Another standout from their first album is “American Nights”, with its heavy, head-banging rhythm and staccato guitar and big, catchy chorus—this song sits exactly between early punk and early metal. “Thunder”, also from the first album, also chugs along but here it’s the glam of Slade that comes to mind. “You Drive Me Wild” sounds the most like the Runaways’ most obvious antecedent, Suzi Quatro, with its bar-blues, boogie-woogie backbeat, and “Dead End Kids” sounds like their answer to Heart’s “Barricuda” and also seems like a blueprint for Pat Benetar’s “Heartbreaker”. Like “Cherry Bomb” and “American Nights”, the lyrics celebrate teenage rebellion in its most illicit fashion.
Their second album, Queens of Noise (taken from a lyric from “American Nights”), continues in the same vein. The title track and “Take It Or Leave It” sound like Ziggy Stardust era Bowie but with bigger, more propulsive drumming driving it forward. Lita Ford and Joan Jett get chances to show their own vocal chops on “Midnight Music” and “Born To Be Bad”, which tend to be more ballad-y (although the huge, crunching riffs on “Born” sound like Sabbath or Rainbow. “Neon Angels On the Road To Ruin” has a sassy strut to it and Currie’s soaring vocals and again touches closest to Suzi Quatro’s music. “I Love Playin’ with Fire” is Joan Jett’s best track, written and sung by her alone and shows flashes of what she would accomplish in her solo work. “California Paradise” and “Hollywood” celebrate the trashy culture of Southern California in sleazy glittered-out hard rock fashion.
Cherie Currie left the Runaways after their second album, and in 1977 the Runaways soldiered on with Jett and Ford sharing the vocals. 1977’s Waitin’ For the Night rocks a little harder and loses some of the more obvious glam rock influence, but songs like “Little Sister” showcase the increasingly powerful songwriting and singing chops of Jett, while songs like “Wasted” and “Fantasies” highlight the metal direction Ford’s music would take post-Runaways. “Gotta Get Out Tonight” has a metallic riff that references “Get It On” by T. Rex.
Their final album, And Now . . . The Runaways, showed a band in decline. Only half the songs were written by the band and many were covers. “Saturday Nite Special” is one of the only standouts. However, it does presage the arc of Joan Jett’s subsequent career, as Joan has achieved more renown for her covers than her own material—“I Love Rock and Roll” (originally by the Arrows), “Do You Wanna Touch Me” (Gary Glitter), and “Crimson and Clover” (Tommy James and the Shondells). Of her early hits, only “Bad Reputation” was written by Joan.
Currie herself released two post-Runaways albums, 1978’s Beauty’s Only Skin Deep and 1984’s duet with her twin sister Marie Messin’ With the Boys. The first isn’t available on iTunes but several cuts are on YouTube; “Call Me At Midnight” shows a clear direction away from the proto-grunge of the Runaways and toward a much more straightforward pop rock sound; its not bad but it lacks the dangerous bite of her Runaways work. “Young and Wild” definitely rocks harder, and hews more closely to the Runaways.
Her second album, Messin’ With the Boys, features both Cherie and her twin sister Marie on vocals but represents an even farther step away from the punch and bite of the Runaways and toward a new wave-tinged pop. “Since You’ve Been Gone” sounds like Patti Smyth era Scandal crossed with “How To Pick Up Girls” by the Little Girls. Their cover of the Raspberries’ “Overnight Sensation” is decent and appropriate thematically for Cherie’s stint in the Runaways. In the 90’s Cherie reprised her biggest career hit, covering “Cherry Bomb” backed by fantastic punk revivalists the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs (who have covered everyone from the Stooges and the MC5 to the Dictators and Dead Boys and who have played with Wayne Kramer and Deniz Tek).
After the breakup of the Runaways, Lita Ford started a solo career that moved more forcefully into a pop/hair metal direction a la LA bands like Ratt. 1984’s Dancin’ On The Edge, which is available on iTunes, is a good example, and “Gotta Let Go” showcases this pop metal material. It wasn’t until 1988’s Lita, which had a much smoother pop sheen, that she achieved breakout success with singles like “Kiss Me Deadly” and her duet with Ozzy Ozbourne “Close My Eyes Forever”.
Even before the Runaways had hit it big, producer/impresario/lecherous Svengali Kim Fowley was trying to recreate their magic. Attempting to cash in on the then-emerging punk trend in Los Angeles, Fowley in 1976 assembled Venus and the Razoblades around 17-year old singer Vicki Arnold. Their single album, which is on iTunes, sounds absolutely NOTHING like punk—its less overtly punky than the Runaways—and while notably primarily because of its novelty aspects, some of the songs are at least well written, and Arnold has an amazing voice (hard to admit this but probably better than Cherie Curry’s in the Runaways). “Finer Things in Life” has a soaring chorus and a chugging refrain that, when matched with Arnold’s exquisite voice, make this sound like a missing Blondie track from Parallel Lines. “I Wanna Be Where the Boys Are” sounds like a Runaways ripoff both musically and lyrically (the Runaways actually cover it on their live album Live In Japan); “Dog Food” sounds like new wave-y 60’s surf music. “Punk-A-Rama” is another Runaways-like sludge-fest with incredibly corny lyrics which are exactly what you’d expect from a 40 year old man trying to cash in on punk’s popularity. Mostly this album sounds like decent female-headed bar band rock.
Venus co-lead singer Dyan Diamond (discovered by Fowley when she was just 14), went solo after this one-and-done, and Kim produced her album In The Dark, which remains an unheralded gem. Sadly, its not available on iTunes, but the song “Your Neighborhood” from it can be found on YouTube. It sounds like catchy female powerpop, with particularly strong vocals; it reminds me of the bouncy mod-influenced pop the Bangles put out on their first album.
In the early 80’s Fowley added Diamond to a “supergroup” he was putting together of musicians from other groups called the Dreamers; “Can’t You See The Love in My Eyes” is smooth MOR pop but its undeniably catchy (this unreleased bootleg is on YouTube).
At the same time Fowley was helping assemble the Runaways, he was writing and producing for a band called the Hollywood Stars, a glam/powerpop/hard rock band similar in musical feel to Kiss. The Kiss connection is perhaps not surprising; the Stars did the original version of “King of the Night Time World” that Kiss then covered on their 1976 breakthrough smash Destroyer. Their biggest hit, “All the Kids on the Street” has a glam-rock stomping beat fused with soaring melodies and a hard rock sheen that is enjoyable 70’s rock. “Sunrise on Sunset” continues in a similar vein and is a good glam/pop lost classic. “Escape” is more crisp 70’s rock; it was covered by Alice Cooper on Welcome To My Nightmare. Fans of Kiss, Angel, Starz, and other smooth 70’s hard rock bands should check this out for sure.
Who were the successors to the Runaways? Obviously there have been many all-female rock groups since; just a few years after the Runaways broke up, the Go-Go’s and the Bangles had formed in LA, and while both went on to considerable success, neither captured the genre-busting rock magnificence of the Runaways. To me the true torch carrier for the Runaways was L7, who made incredibly big, fat, heavy music that pulled on the Ramones and Nirvana but was utterly unique and absolutely earth shattering live. I saw L7 dozens of times in the early 90’s and they were never short of brilliant. My favorite songs are “Fast and Frightning”, “Deathwish”, “Till the Wheels Fall Off”, “Packin’ a Rod”, and their cover of “American Society” by Eddie and the Subtitles off their second album Smell the Magic, and “Shitlist” off Bricks are Heavy.